Episode 12: Tech-Med

Advances in medical science & technology

Adam's Weekly Blog

The rise of the robot surgeon

The rise of the robot surgeon

The idea of a robot surgeon conjures up images of a clinical, foreign...
The idea of a robot surgeon conjures up images of a clinical, foreign future. But it’s wrong to think of it like that for a couple of reasons: firstly it’s not really the future, it’s already with us; secondly, the surgeon is no more robotic than they are now. It is the tools they use which are becoming more advanced and robot-like.

To understand the future of surgery I went to a low-rise building in Sunnyvale, California. Sunnyvale is home to the headquarters of Yahoo and sits in the centre of the high-tech Silicon Valley. That’s no coincidence; this is a technology company as much as it is a medical one.

Globally the market for medical robots and devices is growing. It’s already worth more than five billion dollars and is set to be worth nearly 14 billion dollars by 2018. [1]

The company I was visiting has created a robotic surgery technology called the Da Vinci system.

Da Vinci robots operate in hospitals worldwide with an estimated 200,000 surgeries conducted in 2012, most commonly for hysterectomies and prostrate removals. [2]

However, the Da Vinci robot is thought to cost around $2 million, so while the technology is available; its high price tag is holding back widespread use.[3] Although, at least the Da Vinci machines cost a lot less than many of the real Da Vinci paintings.

The Da Vinci robots look a little like the robots that you see on car production lines with articulated arms that swivel from a central joint. However there is no welding going on here, it’s a much more precise kind of operation.

To see just how precise, I was allowed into their training facility to become a surgeon for the day.

No patients were harmed in the making of this film. Instead I was let loose on a tiny display of rubber bands and rubberised sticks. They were only a few centimetres high and my job was to pick up the tiny rubber bands and hook them over the tiny sticks.

The surgeon or in this case, me, sits across the room from the patient looking through a video panel at a magnified display. I controlled the robotic arms via a few joysticks and foot pedals which allowed me to turn my large, imprecise hand movements into very controlled small movements around the rubber bands.

It takes about half an hour to get the basic feel for it but by then I was getting so confident I felt like I could really have a go at a patient. There were no volunteers amongst the crew though so I stuck with the rubber bands.

Technology like this enables surgeons to conduct very precise surgery. But it seems to me that the full advantages haven’t quite been reached. I was sitting just a few feet away from the operating table but there is no real reason why I couldn’t have been sitting at home controlling the operation thousands of miles away in California.

If that happens it could open a future in which patients around the world could benefit from the surgical skills, not of robots but of human surgeons in different countries. These operations could be performed by robotic arms but are very much dependent on the eyes, knowledge and experience of a living, breathing surgeon. That, I think, is the real future of the robotic surgery.


[2] Babbage Science and technology (18 January 2012). "Surgical robots: The kindness of strangers". The Economist. Retrieved 21 February 2013.

[3] "The Slow Rise of the Robot Surgeon". MIT Technology Review. 24 March 2010. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
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